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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 1 in g minor ‘Winter Dreams’, Op.13 [41:04]
Symphony No. 2 in c minor ‘Little Russian’, Op.17 [32:58]
Symphony No. 5 in e minor, Op.64 [43:51]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, November 2014
ONYX 4150 [74:06 + 43:51]

Vassily Peternko and the RLPO have already given us the greatest Shostakovich cycle this side of the millennium. This winning team now turn their attention to that other great Russian symphonic cycle: this double disc is the first instalment of what will turn out to be a complete Tchaikovsky set. It’s great, and we should not only relish this set but look forward to the next instalment.

Petrenko’s interpretations are overall characterised by energy, that trait that is so important in Russian Romantic music but which is all too often subsumed in cloying indulgence. No such danger here. Right from the start, the first movement of No. 1 crackles with electricity, more than it conventionally has any right to!  The orchestra gives us the most Russian sounding woodwinds I’ve ever heard coming from this shore (as well as the opening, listen to the clarinet that rings out the second subject), a sign of how great an influence Petrenko has been on them. We also get brilliantly busy string work with crisp, precise tuttis. It's the strings’ turn in the slow movement, with playing of delicate yearning and pellucid tone that is utterly delightful.  The songful cellos and icy violins make for an intoxicating mix, and you'd never imagine this music was being made on Merseyside rather than Moscow. The Scherzo is fleet-footed, with a beautifully elegant waltz, and if the finale takes a while to get going (more the inexperienced composer’s fault than Petrenko’s) then when the G major theme enters in its full glory it blazes marvellously brightly, with vigorous strings and glittering brass on top (and an almost defiant drumroll to finish). This symphony is the ugly duckling in the Tchaikovsky set, but this is the most convincing performance I've heard of it in many a day. This is music Petrenko clearly believes in.

No. 2 has a quietly atmospheric introduction, followed by an allegro of great energy (swagger, even) but with a second subject that provides lyrical relief. The development is particularly splendid, especially the moment where the brass ring out with bell-like clarity over the scurrying strings.  The second movement is distinguished not only by its perky march, but also by the heartfelt sincerity of its string playing. The bustling Scherzo bristles with energy, and the splendid finale begins with a marvellously assertive tutti and culminates in a majestic tam-tam stroke that launches a coda of brilliant energy that only very slightly runs away with itself.

The opening of No. 5 is suitably dark but the main allegro is exciting and well argued, the violins, in particular, showing real persuasive power. The climax at the end of the exposition is really exciting and the development is clipped and impressively precise, as is the biting, incisive coda.  The great horn solo that opens the slow movement is beautifully sweet - cantabile indeed - as are the cellos that follow it. There is a sense of argument here, too, but where the first movement is biting and sharp, this one is gently propulsive, flowing sincerely so that the interruptions of the Fate theme are genuinely unsettling.  The waltz is elegant and suave, if a little understated, and the scurrying Trio section put me in mind of the composer’s ballet music, something I don’t often say.  There is a lovely, big string sound to the opening of the finale that nevertheless always avoids sounding so big as to be ungainly.  As with the first movement, the main allegro picks up the pace, but here the energy and passion is stepped up to a much greater degree. Listen, for example, to the way the Fate theme is barked out by the trumpets as the strings swirl around it: the atmosphere is electric, and by this point the music seems to be generating its own tidal wave of energy. The slow coda then rings out with hymn-like clarity before the fast ending sweeps all before it, though some will find it controversial that he keeps the drumroll going all through the final triplet.

In short, this is a hit. It’s too early to comment on where it fits into the canon of complete Tchaikovsky sets, but this impressed me mightily. Bring on Volume Two!

Simon Thompson
Previous reviews: Ian Lace and Brian Wilson



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